The Chilean coup, 50 years later

Two conversations mark the 50th anniversary of the military takeover on Sept. 11, 1973, discussing its political and historical implications.

A row of soldiers lying on their stomachs take cover as La Moneda, the Chilean presidential palace, is bombed.
On Sept. 11, 1973, soldiers supporting the coup led by Augusto Pinochet took cover as bombs are dropped on the Presidential Palace of La Moneda in Santiago, Chile. (Image: AP Photo/Enrique Aracena)

In what was later described as a flash and a roar, bombs penetrated the presidential palace La Moneda in Chile’s capital of Santiago on Sept. 11, 1973. Earlier that morning, President Salvador Allende, a socialist politician and physician by training, had just delivered his final radio address after refusing to leave the palace despite threats. Led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the army and police had already gained control of downtown Santiago and the navy was positioned in the coastal port of Valparaíso. 

Bombs had started dropping over left-leaning radio stations in the capital. “Surely Radio Magallanes will be silenced, and the calm metal instrument of my voice will no longer reach you,” Allende said, alluding to the violence. “It does not matter. You will continue hearing it. I will always be next to you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to his country.”

Under attack, Allende took his own life that day. 

Two conversations mark the 50th anniversary of the Chilean coup. The first, a political science event on Sept. 11th at Perry World House, was moderated by Tulia Falleti, Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of Political Science, and included Arturo Valenzuela of Georgetown University and Peter Siavelis of Wake Forest University. The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies, Perry World House, Department of History, and the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. The second, moderated by Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, associate professor of history, will take place on Sept. 19 at noon in College Hall 209, with Heidi Tinsman of University of California, Irvine; Edward Murphy of Michigan State University; and Camilo Trumper of the University of Buffalo. The second event is sponsored by the the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies, the Department of History, the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, and The Lauder Institute. 

The Chilean coup reverberated throughout Latin America, Falleti said. “We commemorate what was a very tragic event in the history of our countries, and also we do so from the present, seeking to learn from that and trying to avoid the same mistake.”

The Sept. 11 coup brought down one of the oldest democracies in Latin America, Valenzuela said. Seeking to understand how this could happen, Valenzuela said that the eventual breakdown cannot be blamed on one side or another but must be understood as a failure to structure a political center in a highly polemic society. 

Due to the Chilean election processes and constitutional realities, there was no majority vote, Valenzuela said. Allende didn’t have the leadership support he needed to govern.  

The American CIA was also involved in in the Chilean coup on the side of Pinochet. “Why was the U.S. so worried about Chile?” Valenzuela asked. Henry Kissinger was worried about the precedent of a Marxist government elected through a legitimate constitutional process, Valenzuela said, citing Kissinger’s statement that the United States could not allow a Marxist government in Chile.

“The coup was particularly tragic because Chile was really an island of democratic peace in a region that’s way too often characterized by right-wing military boots,” Siavelis said. “We brought an end to one of the longest standing democracies in Latin America, in the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet that killed over 2,300 people, tortured more than 30,000, and sent tens of thousands into exile. I think those are the people that we have to remember today.”

Some 50 years later, we find Chile at a crossroads, Siavelis said. 

He said Chile is heralded in the region for its economic success, and beginning in the 1990s its post transitional governments made remarkable progress in eliminating extreme poverty, diversifying export markets and providing widespread access to higher education. “Most Latin American countries would kill to be able to say what I just said about Chile, but Chile is not happy,” Siavelis said.

“The dictatorship left one of the least equal societies in the world,” Siavelis said, with the health care, education and pension systems regularly failing to provide for Chileans. “Despite success 50 years on, there’s still a sense of democratic precariousness,” he said. 

The 50th anniversary of the military coup provides an opportunity to reflect on the fragility of democracy, which is not invincible anywhere,” Siavelis said. 

In a question-and-answer session at the end, the speakers were asked about the government’s recently-announced commitment to investigate the 1,469 people that were “disappeared” during the dictatorship (1973-1990), and whether or not this was a meaningful step that would bring justice to families and value to democracy. 

The politics of memory and human rights have been critically important in Chile for a long period of time, Valenzuela said. At this point, it’s still possible to interview low-level military officers who may have been involved, he said.